By Stephen Hewitt, Boston Herald
SALEM — Anthony Hodges knew the moment was coming. He just didn't know when.
But as Salem State took a huge, late lead on Jan. 10 against Fitchburg State, he started to get ideas. And with about four minutes left, coach Chris Harvey looked over to him.
"Hodge, you ready to go?" Harvey said.
"Yeah! Are you serious right now?" Hodges replied.
It was time.
More than two years after a car accident left him paralyzed, Hodges was playing basketball again. He checked into the game for Salem State for the first time since 2015 with 2:35 remaining.
The long, incredible road back was complete.
Hodges was nervous. His jersey felt a little heavy on him. He missed on a pair of 3-pointers in a game Salem State won 80-63, but it didn't matter. He had already won.
The emotion was raw. After, in the locker room, he hugged assistant coach Bobby Verdun for about three minutes.
"He's an exceptionally unique, different creature," Verdun said. "You come across an Anthony Hodges once in a lifetime."
'Less than zero' chance
Hodges had become a regular starter by his junior season, and he couldn't wait to lead the Vikings as a senior captain.
"He was primed for a big senior year," Harvey said.
But in the early hours of July 28, 2015, everything changed.
Hodges was in Brockton celebrating his friend's 21st birthday, and at about 1 a.m., he needed to go because he had a workout at 4:30. He got in a car with his friend Carl Brown, of Abington, who Hodges said admitted to him he had been drinking. Brown reassured him that he was good to drive, Hodges said. So they left.
A few minutes later, Brown lost control of the car. It hit a utility pole and flipped. Hodges landed on his neck and was unable to move.
Hodges landed at Brigham and Women's Hospital, where he had emergency surgery on his neck, which was broken in five places.
The doctors then sedated him for two days. When he woke up, a nurse told him he would be dealing with paralysis from the chest down.
"I'm like, 'Is this real?' " Hodges said. "I started just breaking down crying."
Kassy Morales, Hodges' fiancee, said, "The doctors pretty much said that there was a less than zero percent chance that he was going to be able to walk again,"
'No matter what'
The day after he woke up, Hodges was laying in his hospital bed and his mom was rubbing his feet.
"I'm like, 'Mom, I can feel you touch my toe,' " Hodges recalled.
Hodges' hope was miraculously restored. Dr. Yi Lu reevaluated him, and transferred him to Spaulding Rehab in Charlestown, where he spent the next three months. He was progressing faster than anyone could have imagined.
"I didn't see for what it was," Hodges said. "I didn't go by the statistics like they do. They get that every day."
Soon, playing basketball again became the goal.
One day at Spaulding, some of Hodges' teammates visited him. Bryan Ortiz brought him a basketball, and Hodges remembers telling Shaquan Murray, "I'm playing with you senior year no matter what."
"I wrote it down, and I looked at it every day," Hodges said.
Every day, Hodges set goals for himself to accomplish, and he didn't settle for less. When he was discharged from Spaulding, more than three months ahead of schedule, he walked out.
Fine-tuning his skills
Hodges took a year off from school and spent most of 2016 living with his sister in Worcester. There was still plenty of work to do on his comeback.
He could run, but his ankle prevented him from going full speed, and he suffered nerve damage on the left side of his body that caused him to struggle. Every day, he was in the gym working out, and he underwent physical therapy.
But doubt started creeping in. Hodges was playing pickup basketball, and guys were blowing by him. That's when, in December 2016, he met Verdun, who then wasn't an assistant yet, by chance at a basketball court at Salem State.
"We started to talk, and I said, 'What are your goals?' " Verdun said. "He goes, 'Well, I'd love to play again.' And I said, 'Let's make it happen,' and he looked at me like I had three heads. I said, 'Look, Anthony, what else do you have to do for the next year?' "
The next day, they met at 8 a.m. and continued working together for the next year. They went through extensive physical workouts and focused on every little detail.
They had to change his game, too. Before the accident, Hodges had elite athleticism, but he didn't have that same explosiveness anymore. So he had to become more of a shooting guard than a point guard and fine-tune his skills.
"We had to make him smarter," Verdun said.
Hodges also learned how to play with one hand. His left hand was so damaged that it was stuck in a fist all the time.
"We got to a point at the end of the summer when I called him the one-handed bandit," Verdun said. "He was handling the ball better with one hand than a lot of guys handle with two. We adapted his entire game so he could play."
The work paid off. Hodges went back to Brigham and Women's, and Dr. Lu and his team medically cleared him to return.
Meanwhile, in July Brown's drunken driving charge was continued without a finding. He lost his license for 45 days, paid court fees, and began one year of probation.
Outworking his injury
For Hodges, there was just one more road block to clear before he could play. In August, he went in for tendon transfer surgery in his left arm so that he could get control back in his hand. That set his return back a few months.
Just after Thanksgiving, Hodges returned to doing competitive drills at practice. The light at the end of the tunnel was nearing.
"Now it's a matter of time," Harvey said.
Three days after he returned, Hodges checked in again on Jan. 13 late in the game. He got the ball on the right wing, jab-stepped on his defender and went by him. With one dribble, he laid the ball in over the help side defender. He pointed to his teammates on the bench as they erupted.
Harvey reflected on Hodges' journey
"I'm looking at this guy and he's lying in a bed, he's got things strapped all over him, he's not going to walk," Harvey said. "OK, now he's going to maybe walk. OK, well now he can maybe run, well now he's all of a sudden cleared to play sports, now he's playing sports. In those moments it's just like, this is the coolest thing I've ever seen.
"I sit there watching from afar and I find myself staring at him because it's just remarkable to me."
As Salem State begins postseason play tonight at home against Fitchburg State, with the goal of returning to the NCAA Division 3 Tournament for the second straight year, Hodges has been called the "heartbeat" of the team.
Hodges never felt sorry for himself about his situation, never made excuses as he defied the odds.
"What can I do now? That's all it was," Hodges said. "What am I in control of now?"
Those closest to him never doubted he could do it.
"He's very resilient," Morales said. "He always has been, from the moment I met him. I'm not even the least bit surprised that he was able to overcome everything and do everything that he wanted to do."
That's just who Hodges is.
"For me, when I watched him go in the game, it was more than basketball. This is a guy who his whole life has fought," Verdun said. "It wasn't that he got back on the court, it was he got back on the court and now he can go forward with his life and do other things that people said he couldn't do.
"He outworked his injury. He doesn't know how to fail. And if you go into a bunker, you want Anthony Hodges in there."